Recent months have seen escalating clashes along Pakistan’s disputed border with Afghanistan. In the latest, on December 11 and 15, civilians on both sides were killed when Taliban forces fired into Pakistan and Pakistani troops retaliated.
These clashes have their origins in three factors: the presence in Afghanistan of Pakistani Islamist rebels who launch attacks across the border into Pakistan, Pakistani attempts to fence off the border to limit militant attacks, smuggling, and illegal mass migration (more than 250,000 Afghans have fled near-famine conditions in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control last year), and the radical reduction in Western aid.
The Taliban, like every previous Afghan government, has also refused to accept the legality of the frontier that was established by the British Empire. The border fence has caused violent resentment among Afghans living along the border, as well as some of their neighboring Pakistani Pashtun fellow-tribesmen.
Clashes between the Taliban and Pakistan are on the face of it surprising. Pakistani support was instrumental in helping the Taliban take over Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and during the U.S. and Western intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistani shelter of the Taliban played an important part in allowing them to continue their struggle. Some Western and Afghan government propagandists even accused the Taliban (quite falsely) of being mere Pakistani puppets. The problems that Pakistan has faced since the Taliban victory last year have therefore led to a measure of Schadenfreude in the West.
This is misplaced. For what Afghanistan exemplifies is a wider problem that may reach terrifying dimensions in the years to come: that of societies that while ferociously determined to resist intervention and even influence from outside, are themselves incapable of generating or accepting effective modern state institutions. At the time of writing, another extreme case of this is developing on America’s own doorstep, in Haiti.
The modern history of Afghanistan is not only the history of the defeat of successive attempts at outside intervention — whether British, Soviet, or American. More importantly, it has been the history of the failure of successive Afghan regimes to create an effective modern state.
Thus in the 1920s, the attempt of King Amanullah to bring accelerated modernization led to a revolt of the tribes under the banner of conservative religious reaction. Following his overthrow, a more limited and cautious royal regime was established. In the decades after the Second World War, with the help of U.S. and Soviet aid and modern weaponry, this state expanded its power; but it proved incapable of meeting the increased expectations that it had generated in sections of society.
The collapse of dynastic rule in the 1970s led to the catastrophic Communist attempt at accelerated modernization, resulting in another conservative revolt and the eventual victory of the Taliban. Their overthrow by the United States after 9/11 led to yet another attempt at modernization (this time coupled with an attempt at “democracy”), with the results that we now see before us.
The Taliban have certain advantages denied to previous state-builders: their deep rootedness in the conservative Pashtun rural society of eastern and southern Afghanistan; and the tremendous prestige that accrues from their defeat of an infidel superpower. Their ambitions when it comes to state-building are also limited, which given Afghan realities may also be an advantage. Essentially they want to create a state with basic internal peace, which in cultural terms adheres strictly to their version of conservative Islam.
They are however completely incapable of developing Afghanistan economically. As the population surges and public misery grows, this is bound to undermine their rule. Moreover, their limited form of rule allows other armed militant groups to exist, like the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which are tolerated by the Taliban because they do not threaten their rule, they do threaten all Afghanistan’s neighbors. For very obvious reasons, however, none of these neighbors is likely to think of intervening directly in Afghanistan to deal with these threats.
The American establishment clearly wishes to forget that Afghanistan ever existed, and since Kabul is 7,000 miles from the United States this could be possible. Americans will however find it more difficult to ignore state collapse in their own backyard. Haiti is in many ways very different from Afghanistan, but the underlying problem is the same: the perennial failure of attempts at modern state-building, both domestic and through outside intervention. And while Haiti, unlike Afghanistan, has not incubated a terrorist threat to its neighbors, like Afghanistan it has generated huge numbers of migrants and great problems of criminality. Haiti over the past 40 years has seen repeated coups and rebellions.
A brief U.S. military intervention in 1994-95 (until 2000 continued as part of a UN mission) failed to solve or even seriously mitigate any of Haiti’s underlying problems . Given its extremely limited numbers, funding, mandate, and timeframe, there was never any serious prospect that it would. Haiti today lacks an effective government and is dominated by criminal gangs whose warfare and crimes are a nightmare for most of the population.
Haiti might on the surface seem a much more suitable area for U.S. military intervention than Afghanistan. There is no terrorist threat from Haiti, so American forces would not face anything like the fanatically determined resistance of the Taliban. Nor would Haitian gangs receive support and protection from outside powers.
But to do any good, a U.S. intervention would have to be in effect permanent, and involve a government that would for the foreseeable future be staffed by Americans. Every short-term effort followed by a “restoration of democracy” has failed and will go on failing.
In principle, the fact that Haiti is a neighbor of the United States should make this possible. The United States cannot simply walk away from Haiti, any more than Pakistan can walk away from Afghanistan. In practice, however, such a long-term U.S. intervention however looks highly improbable, barring a radical transformation in American attitudes and priorities. Especially after the miserable experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public and Congress are extremely unlikely to accept such an open-ended commitment.
Moreover, the creation of what would in effect be a permanent colonial government would not only challenge contemporary ideas of national sovereignty, it would radically contradict the present largely bipartisan U.S. doctrine of a world divided between democracies and hostile autocracies.
And that is indeed a key point about the examples of Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere: the complete irrelevance of U.S. (as previously Soviet) ideological nostrums to these societies. Both democratic and authoritarian regimes have failed to create effective states in these countries, and on the record so far will continue to fail.
As climate change, coupled with population growth poverty and water shortages, undermines more and more vulnerable states around the world, this problem of failed states in recalcitrant societies is likely to grow, until it becomes a dire threat to all organized and developed societies — once again, irrespective of whether these states are democracies or autocracies.
Above all, such failed or failing states are likely to generate immense waves of migration — as we see already in western Africa and Central America. As the example of Afghan migration to Pakistan indicates, this is not simply a problem for the West, but for every state around the world. The most ferocious anti-immigrant (as opposed to security) border in the world is probably that created by India to stop migrants from Bangladesh, more than 1,200 of whom have been killed by Indian security forces over the past 20 years. Once again, this is a problem that transcends ideological systems, to which neither democracies nor autocracies have found answers that manage to be both effective and reasonably humane, and which demands the combined attention of the international community.
Judging by U.S. behavior during the Cold War, American administrations will be tempted to meddle in these failed states for geopolitical reasons, picking one tribe or gang as anti-Chinese or anti-Russian and then blessing them as “democratic,” as President Reagan notoriously blessed the Afghan Mujahedin. This will make local conflicts even worse. Instead, we should recognize that effective statehood is a fragile thing, and that all countries that have achieved it have a common interest in defending it. In the future, this will also mean finding ways to cooperate in managing the problems emanating from places like Haiti and Afghanistan.